Conflict Reader # 73, 1 March 2019
D. Suba Chandran
International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP)
National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore
January 2019 finally witnessed a direct dialogue between the US and the Taliban. There was a six days long negotiation between the two in Doha, that has been termed positive. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy, was reported to have stated that the Doha meeting was more productive than the previous ones, and confirmed that significant progress had been made “on vital issues.”
Though Khalilzad has also cautioned that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” that includes an intra-Afghan dialogue and a comprehensive ceasefire, Taliban seems to believe that the foreign troops would leave in eighteen months once the draft agreement is in place.
So is there a breakthrough finally in Doha? Or, are there multiple “what ifs” between Doha and Kabul?
Will this dialogue lead to a stable peace in Afghanistan, or will it end up in the US pushing Kabul to a corner, forcing the latter to accept the deal and also the Taliban?
Those who are advocating a deal between the US and Taliban, and “some form of a unity or consensus” in Kabul will have to address the following questions, before finalizing an understanding with the Taliban and forcing the same on Kabul.
What if peace does not follow the American withdrawal?
The general perception is: the Americans would like to withdraw from Afghanistan. This is also considered as an essential precondition for the Taliban to enter into a dialogue. Also a section across the Durand Line, especially that supports the Taliban consider that once the Americans withdraw, the Afghan factions will come together, and peace will follow. What if peace does not follow an American exit? And what is, following the American withdrawal, the Afghans factionalize further and engage in an intra-factional violence?
The recent Afghan history has something else to say. Three decades ago, peace did not follow the withdrawal of Soviet troops. In fact, post-Soviet withdrawal the Afghans were further divided and fought among themselves violently, providing space to the entry of an entirely new group into Afghanistan. The Mujahideen infighting led to the Taliban takeover, with support from Pakistan.
Will the history repeat itself when the American troops withdraw from Afghanistan? Will the Afghan factions start fighting amongst themselves, leading to another season of violence? Will it be violence by Afghans and violence against Afghans?
Despite the announcement of dialogue three weeks ago, and the dialogue between the US and Taliban, violence has not come down within Afghanistan in February 2019. A survey of violence in Afghanistan during January and February 2019 will reveal, that the Taliban is engaged in violence on the one hand, and negotiating with the US on the other hand.
End to violence should be a necessary condition for any political dialogue with an insurgent group. The US seems to be ignoring this basic fact.
What if the US decides to keep a residue force? What if there are “Rambos”?
The above question is based on the assumption that the Americans would withdraw completely from Afghanistan. What if they don’t? What if they would like to leave a residue force in Kabul? A Taliban spokesman was quoted saying that the “the Islamic Emirate” made it clear during the Doha talks that “until the issue of withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan is agreed upon, progress in other issues is impossible.”
Withdrawal of international troops appears like an explicit pre-condition from the Taliban’s side. Is the US ready for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, including its contractors and CIA operatives?
Perhaps the number of American soldiers get reduced. But what about the other Americans? What about the American contractors to whom the US has outsourced most of its security activities? Given the assets that the US has created within Afghanistan, it is less likely that the US would completely leave Afghanistan.
Also for the US, the goal posts have substantially shifted in Afghanistan since the American troops invaded in 2001. Afghanistan’s long borders with Iran and also with Central Asia is likely to be a factor for the US. Geographically, Afghanistan is too important for the US to completely close its eyes and leave in total.
The simple question is: Is the US ready to entirely leave Afghanistan? Will Kabul be ok with such an idea?
What if the Taliban foot soldiers differ with Mullah Baradar?
The next major question that would decide the outcome of the Doha process will be the ability and reach of Mullah Baradar and the section of the Taliban that is part of the negotiation so far.
To consider the Taliban as a monolithic entity and that every section is keen on a dialogue with the US will be farfetched. A section within the Taliban and its supporters across the Durand Line in Pakistan should be convinced that it is only a matter of time, before the US and Afghan troops collapse under the militant pressure.
Since the beginning of 2019, there were coordinated Taliban attacks on different military and police outposts in southern, central and eastern provinces of Afghanistan. Taliban killed scores of Afghan police officers, border forces, members of National Directorate of Security (NDS) and members of pro-government militias. Besides the regular attacks on police and military posts, there were also regular attacks of massive scale. For example, the attack on NDS compound in Wardak that killed more than 100; outside Wardak, during January 2019 alone there were massive Taliban attacks on the security forces in the provinces of Baghlan, Balkh, Kandahar, Badghis and Herat.
One could map a similar pattern during 2018 as well, concerning the Taliban attacks. Clearly, the Taliban is on an offensive. Why will it agree to stop at this juncture?
There is also so much hope in Mullah Baradar, who was leading the Taliban in Doha. He was one of the founding fathers of the Taliban and was considered closer to Mullah Omar. During the last decade, Mullah Baradar even attempted a dialogue with President Ghani. Unfortunately, Pakistan did not appreciate the process then and put him behind bars since 2010. He was released only in October 2018.
Within the Taliban hierarchy, much has changed since the days of Mullah Omar. The Quetta Shura got overshadowed with the emergence of the Haqqani network supported by Pakistan. The ISIS had entered Afghanistan and has been active in parts. With its extra-radical outputs and brutalities, the ISIS could become an option for a section within the Taliban. Perhaps, it has already become.
What if Mullah Baradar is not able to sell the package to rest of the Taliban? Or, what is the Taliban is using Doha as a tactical move to ensure the return of the international troops and the release of Taliban fighters?
What if there is no intra-Afghan dialogue?
What if the “Islamic Emirate” does not want to negotiate with the elected leadership in Kabul, and vice-versa?
For the last many months, President Ghani has been on record inviting everyone to join the intra-Afghan dialogue. The Taliban has been opposed to the idea of talking to the elected Afghan leadership in Kabul – both the non-Pashtuns and Pashtuns.
Given an option, even the elected leadership in Kabul would not want to negotiate with the Taliban. Additionally, with everyone getting ready for the forthcoming Presidential elections, they do not wish to see as an American puppet. This was one of the primary reasons why President Karzai distanced himself from the US towards the end of his term – not to be seen as a Washington stooge.
What the US agree with the Taliban may not get translated into action if there is a considerable gap (which is) between the political leadership in Kabul and the Taliban. Kabul is distant from Doha.
As the recent attack in Kandahar that killed more that 30 Afghan security forces would reveal that the Taliban has not gone slow in its violent activities despite engaging the US in a dialogue process. Expecting the Taliban to give up violence and engage the elected leadership is as good as expecting a predator in the wild to practice yoga and drink orange juice and eat apple pie.
What if Pakistan takes another U-turn?
It was no coincidence that Zalmay Khalilzad was in Islamabad before kick-starting the process in Doha. There is a widespread belief that he was in Pakistan to pressurise Islamabad to convince the Afghan Taliban to enter into a dialogue process with the US. More importantly, he should have also pressurised Pakistan from not playing a negative role and using its Haqqani network to sabotage the process.
Pakistan has been resisting such US pressures until now. Why should it change now?
During the last two years, especially after Trump becoming the President, Pakistan has been under tremendous American pressure. Washington has used the bilateral US aid, Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and other international groups (even believed to have asked the IMF) to apply pressure on Pakistan to rework its Afghan policy. Within Pakistan as well, there have been voices to reformulate Islamabad’s Afghan approach.
Is Pakistan finally on board? Or, is it waiting for the US to leave the region and ensure that the Taliban is back in the driving saddle in Kabul? What if, Pakistan’s decision is tactical, including the one to release Mullah Baradar?
What if the Afghan people do not want a role for the Taliban?
Finally, what if the Afghan nation is against a deal with the Taliban? While the majority within Afghanistan want the foreign troops to leave and want a ceasefire, are they willing to see the return of the Taliban to Kabul?
Many Afghans would agree that the Taliban should be a part of the final deal. However, what position they are willing to provide?
Today’s Afghanistan should not be seen from those who fought the American interests during the 1980s in the name of jihad. The Mujahideen era is over and the majority would prefer to be a part of democratic and progressive Afghanistan, and certainly not an Emirate.
Also, there is a substantial change especially amongst the Afghan youth, who has a national identity outside their tribal and ethnic loyalties. The US and rest of the international community should take credit for this change inside Afghanistan and should work harder to strengthen the same.
Exiting Afghanistan with providing a space for the Taliban in Kabul and pressurising the elected leadership to accept the same will be the easiest option. But this will come back to haunt everyone.
An abridged version of the above brief was first published in the Rising Kashmir